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Are we about to see the opening shots of a third world war? Hopefully cool heads will prevail

Tom Clonan analyses the case for the US to send a message with airstrikes in Syria – but the consequences could be far-reaching and costly.

Tom Clonan

EUROPE’S AIR TRAFFIC control agency, Eurocontrol, has warned airlines to avoid airspace in the Eastern Mediterranean due to the danger of missile attacks in the coming days. As President Trump warns of imminent airstrikes in Syria and Russia threatens retaliation, what can we expect to happen in the coming days?

To begin with, US airstrikes are nothing new within Syria. Since 2014, the United States has committed significant military assets to support a coalition of military groups opposed to President Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Damascus. This coalition of groups – ranging from Kurdish elements to Sunni militias – are known collectively as the SDF, or Syrian Democratic Forces.

At present, the US has approximately 2,000 ground troops consisting of special forces, artillery and forward air support personnel within Syria. These troops are providing command and control and tactical ground and air support to dwindling SDF operations predominantly in northern Syria, east of the Euphrates River.

Since 2014, the US has committed $14 billion to its military efforts to oust President Assad’s regime. This has included $13 million per day – every day – over four years in constant rolling airstrikes against Assad’s Syrian Arab National Army (SANA). This costly and drawn out military campaign has succeeded in destroying Islamic State’s so-called caliphate within Syria, but it has failed completely to damage Assad’s regime.

A bloody and merciless civil war

On the contrary, President Assad and the Syrian Arab National Army have retaken approximately 75% of Syria’s territory in a bloody and merciless civil war. Vladimir Putin and Russian forces have been instrumental in ensuring that President Assad – along with his Hezbollah and Iranian allies – have effectively won the war in Syria. Since 2015, Putin has provided Assad’s regime with Russian air force jets and helicopters in close support operations to besiege, bombard and destroy rebel held towns and cities throughout Syria.

As each rebel stronghold has been destroyed – with enormous civilian casualties – Assad has stitched together a patchwork quilt of government-controlled territories and corridors throughout Syria to the extent that he now controls almost all of its territory.

Putin’s support for Assad was a game-changer in this vicious civil war. With the fall of Douma at the weekend – with the alleged use of chemical weapons there – it is effectively game over for Syria’s armed opposition, the SDF. It also signals the end of any realistic military options for the United States within Syria. It is against this background that the Trump administration has announced its intention to launch a new round of air strikes against the regime.

In an otherwise seemingly chaotic White House, the Trump administration has been consistent in its armed response to chemical attacks on civilians in Syria. In April 2017, Trump ordered missile strikes after a sarin gas attack on civilians at Khan Sheikhoun in central Syria. Up to 60 US Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched at Assad’s Sharyat air base close to Homs in response to this bestial war crime. Supporters of Trump contrast this swift response with President Obama’s relative inaction after a horrific chemical attack on Syrian civilians in Eastern Ghouta in 2013.

Some Trump staff keen to make a mark 

In the year since Trump’s missile strikes of April 2017, there have been some major – and highly significant – changes in his White House staff. He has replaced his relatively bland and inept Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with a very hawkish Mike Pompeo, former Director of the CIA. He has also rid himself of the steadying hand of his seasoned National Security Advisor Lieutenant General HR McMaster and replaced him with firebrand John Bolton.

Bolton, who started as National Security Advisor this week will be keen to make his mark in this current crisis. Bolton – who is worryingly referred to as a ‘Super-Hawk’ within Republican circles – is currently working with Pompeo on Trump’s missile response with the aid of US Secretary of Defence, General ‘Mad-Dog’ Jim Mattis. In defence and intelligence circles there is considerable speculation that the administration will seek to re-assert the military, diplomatic and military reputation of the United States in the Middle East with a ‘shock and awe’ type response to the alleged chemical attack in Douma.

Trump has considerable assets within the Eastern Mediterranean with which to inflict a prolonged air strike and missile campaign against the Russian- and Iranian-backed Assad regime. At present there are two US Navy destroyers on station off the Syrian coastline with cruise missile capability. The US Aircraft Carrier Strike Group – USS Harry Truman – is also entering operational range off the Lebanese coastline. In fact, the final approach of this aircraft carrier group may explain to some extent the current delay in launching President Trump’s much heralded missile response.

The aircraft carrier group will significantly increase the number of US navy destroyers and submarines capable of launching Tomahawk cruise missiles at military and air targets throughout Syria. It will also provide Trump and his White House Staff with over 70 combat aircraft capable of conducting round the clock rolling airstrikes on Syrian targets.

The first task of the United States will be to destroy Assad’s meagre air defence systems consisting of any aircraft – Russian manufactured jets and helicopters – operated by the Syrian Arab National Army, along with any of their surface to air missile batteries. The destruction of these assets will also deprive the Assad regime of the principal means of delivery of the regime’s weapon of choice – so-called ‘Barrel Bombs’ allegedly used to drop chemical weapons on civilian targets.

It is possible, if a prolonged campaign emerges, that the US will seek to destroy Assad’s artillery and missile battery units dispersed throughout the areas of the country currently controlled by him. In short, the likely US military response will consist of two distinct phases, waves of cruise missile strikes designed to degrade Syrian air defences and command and control infrastructure followed by rolling air strikes intended to destroy – in detail – their artillery and missile-based military infrastructure.

The two major drawbacks of a strike

Whilst this concept of operations is depressingly predictable, it has two major drawbacks. Firstly, it risks bringing the US and Russia into direct armed confrontation. With Putin’s ground and air assets dispersed throughout Syria – in support of Assad’s forces – the risk of hitting Russian targets is high. Particularly when the Russians have stated that they will use their sophisticated S-400 ballistic missile system against incoming US projectiles along with the naval platforms used to launch them. It is known that the Russians have stocks of 9M96 missiles deployed to Syria – capable of destroying US cruise missiles and aircraft within Syrian airspace.

Assad’s forces have already begun to move some of their material and assets to regional Russian bases such as Hmeymim along with the large Russian bases at Latakia and Tartus on the coast. The Russian defence ministry has also demanded from the United States a full list of their intended targets with dire warnings of retaliation if Russian personnel or equipment is targeted either deliberately or accidentally. These warnings may flow from a serious incident in February of this year when US airstrikes killed dozens of Russian Special Forces troops who were supporting an Assad assault on US positions at Khusham in Deir al-Zour Province.

The second drawback to the proposed US missile and airstrike retaliation is that it is unlikely to make any material difference on the ground to the de facto victory of President Assad and his forces in Syria’s civil war. The US administration know this and it may be the case that the real purpose of this latest military escalation is to send a message to Russia and Iran that the US will not tolerate their growing strength and influence throughout the Middle East.

In the next few days, we may see the opening shots of a long and extremely costly proxy regional war in the Middle East with Russia, Iran and Hizbollah on one side, and the US, Israel and a coalition of Gulf States on the other.

Whilst this does not represent the beginning of a global conflict or a third world war – Russia is unlikely to escalate to a war with the US unless its own territory is directly threatened – it may represent a step in that direction. This is a time for cool heads and calm leadership – the accidental downing of a civilian airliner or some other unforeseen incident could trip a catastrophic multi-regional conflict.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter here.  

  • Article image: Russian President Vladimir Putin looks to the skies at the ‘Space’ pavilion in Moscow today. Credit: Maxim Shipenkov/AP/PA Images

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Tom Clonan

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